Excerpt: 'Alex and Me'

Day four was even better. Alex again came out of his cage spontaneously and even perched voluntarily for a short time. He continued to enjoy chewing paper. When I gave him some I said things like, "Paper, here's your paper," placing emphasis on the relevant label. My friend Marion Pak, who volunteered to help train Alex, came to meet him for the first time. He immediately took to her, perched easily, and spent an hour seeming quite content with her. And why not? She wasn't the one who had subjected him to torture in a dark box for hours, tossed him on the floor, and broken a feather.

I needed Marion's help with Alex because I was going to use a modified form of a training method I had researched while at Harvard. I'll describe it in more detail later. Essentially, though, the method involves two trainers, rather than the usual one, and they take turns asking each other about an object's label, with Alex observing. Then either one would query Alex, using the same words. The idea was that he would learn in a social context. This procedure was radically different from what would have been considered normal at the time. Marion and I started such training that day, on the label "paper."

After Marion left that morning I stayed with Alex for another hour. I purposely ignored him until he made a noise, then I rewarded him with paper, again saying, "Paper, Alex, here's your paper." Any parrot owner can tell you that their bird may spontaneously learn some random words, but that's not the same as teaching meaningful communication. The first small step in Alex's training was for me to link any novel sound to the single object paper, as Marion and I had done in training earlier. The only vocalization Alex made was something like "Auf," which seemed exploratory, and a rasping, subvocal noise he made randomly. As I gave him one index card I said, "OK, Alex, there's a long way to go, buddy." Alex didn't say anything, just continued shredding paper and wiping his beak. But we had started our work together at last.

It turned out that beginning training with "paper" was an extremely bad choice, because it is very hard to make a "puh" sound if you don't have lips. But Alex himself had made the choice, so we were stuck with it.

During the next four or five weeks I steadily raised the bar for Alex, to push him to achieve more and more. For instance, during training, Marion and I waited for some kind of two-syllable utterance—resembling "pa-per" in rhythm if not in actual sounds—before we would reward him with some paper. That's what is called the "acoustic envelope," the sound shape of the word. We also introduced a silver-colored key to Alex, so that he wouldn't come to associate verbalizing only with paper. He became steadily more vocal and began to produce sounds like "ay-er" when Marion and I asked him "What's this?" when showing him paper, and "ee" for the key. Sometimes he got confused and combined the sounds, like "ee-er." But he was definitely beginning to get it.

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